Wall Street, Big Oil, and Federal Workers

What do workers in finance, energy, and the federal government have in common? Very generous compensation packages, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

When I posted federal compensation data last week, I received a flood of comments that disputed my contention that federal workers are overpaid. A common retort was that “federal workers are not burger flippers.” That’s true, but workers in the computer systems design, computer manufacturing, and chemicals industries are not burger flippers either, yet those folks also earn less than federal workers, on average.

The Bureau of Economic Analysis presents compensation data for 72 industries that span the U.S. economy (Table 6.2D). Figure 1 shows the 20 industries with the highest levels of average compensation, including wages and benefits. It also shows the average for all U.S. private industries and the average for the industry with the lowest compensation, which, indeed, includes burger flipping. (I’ve simplified the names of the industries in some cases).

Federal civilian workers have the seventh highest average compensation of 72 industries. Compensation in the federal civilian workforce is topped only by compensation in three finance-related and three energy-related industries.

Should federal compensation be so high? We are always told that the 1.9 million federal civilian workers are “public servants,” implying that they are selflessly sacrificing for the good of the nation. I’m sure that most federal workers are dedicated employees, but looking at these compensation levels, I don’t see much sacrificing going on.

It is true that there are some elite agencies in the government that need to have high compensation levels. But the bulk of the federal workforce is in sprawling bureaucracies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has a huge army of about 100,000 workers. The main job of USDA workers is to administer farm aid, food stamps, and other subsidy programs. That sort of paper-pushing work is not rocket science.

The other point I made last week is that the BEA data makes clear that federal compensation has skyrocketed this decade. Figure 2 provides more support for that claim.

Federal civilian workers had the fifth highest average compensation increase among 72 industries between 2000 and 2008. Average federal civilian compensation increased 57 percent, which compared to the overall average increase in the private sector of 31 percent.

Let’s slow this freight train down. Federal pay ought to be frozen for a period of years, at least until the economy recovers and private sector pay starts catching up.